As Salons Reopen, Owners Strive For Client Intimacy — Despite Social Distance, Masks, & Plexiglass

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The masses paint therapists as tweedy adults who sit in a relaxed position while donning leather brogues, round spectacles, and an earnest look on their faces. But anyone who's ever spent time in a beauty salon knows that therapists can also also take form in nail technicians, hair stylists, and aestheticians. So it's no wonder why one may hear a sigh of relief as various parts of the United States begin to give the green-light on reopening beauty salons with new safety conditions.

A new era of these self-care safe havens is emerging: intimate conversations between hairstylists and clients are muffled through masks, manicurists have a slightly distorted vision of their clients through plexiglass walls, and waiting rooms are replaced with sanitation stations. These newly mandated rules — that vary from state to state — pose a serious question to the beauty industry as a whole: Will the cathartic experience of beauty appointments be the same?

“We hope to maintain the former salon experience to whatever extent possible,” Jin Soon Choi, celebrity manicurist and New York City salon owner, tells TZR. As New York City entered Phase 3 on July 5, she made the decision to open her Manhattan nail salons again — along with many other personal care businesses (including hair salons, tanning salons, and medispas) across the boroughs.

"People are really missing a lot of their self-care beauty treatments. They help us feel good."

And across the country, beauty salons are running different races as states begin to implement their own sets of safety rules. For example, in a recent announcement, California Governor Gavin Newsom mandated that beauty salons are prohibited from opening indoors, but are allowed to continue services outside. In Washington, D.C., walk-ins are prohibited, and beauty salons are only allowed to accept appointments.

At Choi's New York City salons, the installation of plexiglass throughout is designed to upkeep the salons’ modern wood aesthetics and maintain a relaxing environment. Aside from the quality services the salons are best known for, it's a small step Choi is taking to ease clients back into some semblance of normalcy.

However, the other side of the attempt for normalcy includes the less glamorous list of adhering to the New York City capacity rule, which caps the amount of clients at 50%, the elimination of a waiting area, client and technician temperature checks, mask requirements, and visible social distancing floor marks. But, according to Choi, this hasn’t slowed down business for her grand reopening at all.

"While some people won't go see a therapist, they will tell their hairstylist everything."

“We are booking pretty fast, and I feel the first week of opening [was] very busy,” she says. “I think people are really missing a lot of their self-care beauty treatments, as these help us feel good. Despite the precautions put in place, people will still enjoy having a fresh manicure from the salons once they open.”

And despite the potential health risk, Choi doesn't miss the mark in consumer demands, according to Dr. Gretchen Felopulos, Ph.D., a staff psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School. "The connection with the service providers can be really significant for some," Felopulos tells TZR. Felopulos herself has been going to the same hairstylist for the past 24 years, even following them after changing locations.

"While some people won't go see a therapist, they will tell their hairstylist everything, often getting solid guidance if not emotional support in return," she notes. "The routine and familiarity also allows us to regain a sense of normalcy, which I think we are all craving. Anything we can do to reestablish a sense of predictability or regularity seems to help bring down our anxiety — routines are soothing, comforting in this way."

But for a few months — four months, to be specific, for New York-based artists — stylists and clients were unable to physically keep in touch. While manicurist Mei Kawajiri, who works with Alexa Chung and Bella Hadid, still uses Instagram and texts to connect with her clients at a distance, she notes how the CDC-advised rules are reflective of a lot of safety precautions that she was already practicing. For further safety, she’s added extra moments of hand-washing and sanitizing when working with clients in person.

"People say we're non-essential even though our craft is directly linked to people's self-esteem."

“My clients love nails and they’ve been excited to get them done again," she says. "Even before COVID-19, I wore masks during appointments to avoid nail dust, so clients kind of look at me as doing the normal. It’s just sometimes hard to hear our voices during our conversations now that we’re both wearing them.”

But what about salons that are still unable to open? On the West Coast, celebrity hairstylist Kim Kimble is innovating stylist and client relations through virtual classes, tutorials, and consultations. On some occasions, her stylists will accept one-on-one appointments, but the services are usually "something that can last longer" and are limited to braiding or wigs. Additionally, her salon offers product packages that are specific to her clients. However, she explains how the restrictions still bare weight on the relationship between her clients, despite the efforts.

"Black women and other women of color are used to seeing someone for their hair since it can be difficult to manage," she says. "And people say we're non-essential even though our craft is directly linked to people's self-esteem. Our clients are extremely loyal and fly from all over the world to see us. Having to find someone else during a time of restricted travel is emotionally stressful."

"I sit on Zoom calls all day long and when I look at my dark roots, I get sad."
Photo courtesy of Clarissa Teodoro

And this sentiment is surely shared with some consumers. Marge Molloy, a beauty publicist in New York City, is a natural brunette who prefers her hair to be golden blonde. After her brown locks grew 5 inches, she decided earlier in June that it was time to head to the salon while back at home in Newport Beach, California even though it meant she wouldn’t be going to her usual stylist. On top of this, Newport Beach was infamously becoming a focal point for people who weren’t adhering to socially-distanced practices.

“The salon made it seem like it was really abiding by all CDC’s guidelines online, and I was willing to take the chance,” Molloy says. “But it was extremely difficult to hold my mask up while they were washing, dyeing, and styling my hair, which made me worry about how it takes away from the effectiveness of keeping me safe. I was a little antsy the whole time considering that other clients weren’t wearing their masks, and there were a few obstacles to what is usually a relaxing time.”

Beauty appointments are a regular occurrence for Molloy, since her career is adjacent to the beauty industry. She explains how she loves the feeling of freshly bleached hair, and that the aforementioned appointment, despite the hiccups, was worth it. “I sit on Zoom calls all day long and when I look at my dark roots, I get sad,” Molloy says. "This may sound superficial, and it is to a degree, but going without my usual beauty treatments makes me feel as though I do not look like my best self, and I really needed a little boost.”

Despite the new safety regulations, beauty appointments during the pandemic are still resulting in pleasant experiences between clients and their technicians or stylists who are able to meet.

It’s a special human connection that is long overdue — desperately needed when people feel as if they’re withering away at home.
JLN Photography/Shutterstock

Clarissa Teodoro, a hairstylist at Industry Salon in Seattle, Washington, says that her clients have expressed nothing but gratitude to be back in her chair. “They are more aware that it is a huge privilege to get their hair done at a time like this,” Teodoro explains. “They’ve been extremely mindful of the situation and have been tipping more, not rushing us, and not questioning every little thing we do. They really appreciate a renewed sense of identity after not being able to for four months.”

And the positive sentiments from her clients also parallel Teodoro’s. She explains that the elevating emotional experience that her line of work can provide people is a major reason why she pursued her career in the first place. It’s a special human connection that is long overdue but also desperately needed during difficult times when people feel as if they’re withering away at home.

“Hairstylists are therapists. They come and sit, and they talk about whatever they like, no matter how casual or how serious,” she says. “Imagine going four months without your therapist. It’s a personal interaction that people need and that works both ways.”

Teodoro thinks that the pandemic has led to something incredibly positive regarding client and stylist relations. Her clients have not shied away from reminding Teodoro of how important her job is during these times.

“They could’ve gone to anyone. The fact that they waited for me to come back just shows how much they care about our relationship.”

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support.